Bacalhau: The unofficial national dish of Portugal, and don’t pass the salt

The unofficial national dish of Portugal is bacalhau, or dried salted cod. The story goes that there is a different bacalhau recipe for every day of the year. There are those who believes that the stories provide a gross underestimate.

Bacalhau naturally dates back to the days before refrigeration: Drying and salting served to preserve the fish. At a group dinner, one of the faculty members lobbied heavily but ultimately unsuccessfully for us to order the bacalhau. I did have a bacalhau appetizer later in the trip, so I did hold up my end of the deal, eventually.

A friend of a friend spent some time in Lisbon and prior to my trip, he recommended that I try a bacalhau dish. "The one I got was too salty, but that might just have been bad luck on my part."

Nope, it wasn't bad luck. It really is salty.

Actually, Portuguese food is salty pretty much across the board. Definitely a problem if you're watching your sodium intake. I remember one dish consisting of grilled salmon with rice and salad. The salmon was salty. The rice was salty. The salad was salty.

I'm told that the Portuguese public health department recognizes the high sodium levels in traditional Portuguese cooking and is trying to get people to cut down. Good luck there fighting hundreds of years of culinary tradition.

Sidebar: Perhaps it was just my choice of restaurants, but I was often disappointed with the vegetables, or what passed for vegetables. For example, that salmon dish counted rice and salad as vegetables. Others counted potatoes as a vegetable. (Psst, potatoes and rice may technically be vegetables, but they are not green. They are starches.) With beef often comes creamed spinach, although the Portuguese preparation blends the spinach into a purée rather than leaving the spinach leaves in small chunks. And the traditional Portuguese vegetable soup consists of cabbage and potato, with some carrot if you're lucky.

I just hope this was touristified restaurant food and that real Portuguese people eat proper vegetables.

Comments (30)
  1. SM says:

    I remember travelling to Spain & Portugal with my parents as a grade-schooler.  At one restaraunt I recall we watched as guests at another table were brought what looked like a tray containing a mound of coarse salt.

    The waiters scraped and chiseled the salt away to reveal a fish underneath, which they then served.  But that was as close as I got to it.

  2. . says:

    Please define "proper vegetables"..

    In european kitchens potatoes and salad are quite common vegetables to be served with both meat and fish..

  3. KristofU says:

    Americans giving health advice to other countries about food?

    When Portuguese people start dropping dead of eating too much salt and not enough green vegetables sooner than Americans are dropping dead because of too much calories and fat altogether, only then should they start to worry.

  4. Trembles says:

    KristofU, that doesn’t make sense.  What you said is that only when the Portuguese are worse off than absolutely everyone else, they should worry.  Sounds like an excellent recipe to become worse off than absolute everyone else.

  5. Dasha says:


    I live in Portugal for 15 years and I don’t find portuguese food too salty. But I agree about monotony of vegetables: in common restaurant you normally find a salad, potato and rice or spaghetti… But I think it is the typical of mediterranean food: it is simple and healthy. If you search for healthy dietetical plans you quickly find a lot of mediterranean menus to follow, it always include olive oil, no fried food and a lot of fruit.

    The only problem I found with portuguese food: there are too many eggs (specially gems) in the traditional sweets.:)

  6. mikeb says:

    Don’t forget everyone, ketchup is a vegetable!

  7. KristofU says:

    @Trembles : you’re absolutely right of course. it was an emotional reaction on my part, and sort of meant as flamebait/food-for-thought about general american eating habits and their approach to foreign cultures. i know that the word ‘general’ is quite the evil one in this case, but humour me ;)

  8. Nelson says:

    Not only the portuguese food is too salty "we" are also following the high calories/fat diet road too specially the younger generations.

    The latest statistics say we have between 15% and 17% obeses among the adult population, and rising.

  9. Chris says:

    While in Lisbon I once had the Portuguese variant of (Spanish) Gazpacho. (I can’t remember the Portuguese name for it, though.) That’s a cold vegetable soup (and we’re talking tomatos, sweet peppers, cucumbers, garlic etc. here). That’s a really nice starter on a hot day.

  10. Nitpick says:

    (Psst, rice is technically a cereal.)

  11. Leverett says:

    I noticed that the Yuhong Bao fellow doesn’t really comment on posts like this one.  I guess he doesn’t really have much to say about salted cod.

  12. fersis says:

    Have anyone eated a ‘Pollo a la sal’ (Chicken with salt) ??

    Is a chicken (pollo) under 1 kilogram of ‘Sal gruesa’ (heavy salt).

    Then you put it on the oven and a couple of hours later is done.

    And the thing is .. its NOT SALTY ! REALLY!

    i dont know how to translate ‘Sal gruesa’ to english , but heavy salt is close.


  13. fersis says:

    As you see ,im not an english speaker.

    so ,sorry if you guys have to fight with my writing to understand it :'( .


  14. Salty salad? Seems a tad redundant. The word "salad" comes from the ancient Roman dish "herba salata" –salted vegetables.

    Sal gruesa = "Coarse salt" (i.e., big grains)?

  15. Back on topic…

    .NET encryption is too salty, and Vista contains no vegetables whatsoever

  16. Bruno Santos says:

    The problem in Portugal is that there too many restaurants, if you go to the interior is easier to find good restaurants, but if go to the litoral (dependy on the place) there are as many bad restaurants and good.

    In Lisbon I only eated there once, well actualy I complained that food too much salty (in the book) and left.

  17. sm says:

    With the fishy, I think, the main ingredient is supposed to be beer. Then it starts to make much more sense :-)

  18. British Imperialist says:

    Hmm, Portugese food sounds just like Indian food.  Too salty, and no proper vegetables.  How can a people develop a civilization over thousands of years without vegetables?  (I know, I know, you can live on bread and water.)

  19. steveg says:

    I had one of the best meals of my life in a little restaurant on the seaside in north Portugal (no, I can’t remember the name of the village, curses!). I speak no Portugese but I gathered I should’ve ordered half plates not two full plates.

    Two enormous dishes, one fish, the other beef. It’s 10 years later, and I can still taste them… Yum!

    Oh right. My point was not much in the way of vegetables as mentioned.

  20. Steve says:

    The comment on Yuhong Bao made me go look at the posts that have his comments on them and he truly is one staggeringly annoying individual. Coming up fast in second place is Igor Liviki. I now wonder if one of them created a blog and the other commented on it if they would get stuck in an endless loop and neither would ever come here again?

  21. Dean Harding says:

    Whether you have lots of vegetables in your diet depends a lot on history. These days, with greenhouses and so on, it’s pretty easy to grow vegetables almost anywhere, at almost any time of the year (and even if you can’t, you can transport them from around the world with relative ease).

    But that wasn’t always the case. In the past, vegetables were often only available at certain times of the year. And so you had to make do with whatever you have. Indians use a lot of chick peas, Koreans made Kim’chi and stored it over the winter months, and the Portuguese used a lot of salt (apparently).

  22. CRM says:

    The original reason for believing high sodium diets were "bad" for you was that a lot of salt temporarily raises blood pressure in about 5% of the population.  This has led (without causative evidence) to 30+ years of the belief in N America that the most popular condiment in human history has a negative effect on health.  Turns out it doesn’t:

    New study casts further doubt on risk of death from higher salt intake

  23. Mike Dimmick says:

    I visited Portugal for a week last year, staying with my sister who was on secondment out there for a year, helping to bring some offshored workers up to speed. I don’t recall Portuguese food being particularly salty. I never tried the Bacalhau though, I’d already heard that this was one of those prized delicacies prized because they’re disgusting.

    In a similar vein, when I visited Iceland about ten years ago I don’t recall even being offered Hákarl (putrefied shark), but if I had been, I’d have refused.

  24. Jose Simas says:

    I am bemused by the salads comments as the most common bacalhau recipe (“bacalhau com batatas”, literally cod with potatoes) is one of the few Portuguese dishes that is served with several different vegetables. See for a variation.

    Bacalhau is one of those dishes that I avoid eating in restaurants because it is usually too salty. For the simplest recipes you have to put it in water or milk for several hours before cooking. It is also important to choose the right “part”. Some bits are way too salty no matter what you do and some recipes are to be served with (lots of) white wine or beer. Bacalhau it is really good and I would urge anyone to try it, especially if you appreciate salted or smoked fish or meat.

  25. Chris Adams says:

    I spent a couple of weeks in Portugual awhile back: towards the end I was desperate enough for vegetables that I went to a *German* restaurant.

  26. Drake Wilson says:

    The thing about rice and potatoes being vegetables reminds me of the bottom comic of  :-)

  27. fersis says:

    Michael Zuschlag you are right

    Sal gruesa = "Coarse salt" (i.e., big grains)?

    is a better transalation.

    Raymond have you visited Argentina ?

    We have some tasty meals here.

  28. Adriano says:

    Raymond, I don’t know in Portuguese, but at least in Spanish there’s a distinction between "vegetales" (vegetables) and "verduras" (‘greens’?). The former include ‘taters, etc. while the latter doesn’t.

  29. Mark says:

    British Imperialist: have you ever eaten Indian food?  Many Indians are vegetarian by accident, simply because Indian food contains so much.  And if anything, there will be excessive sugar, not salt.

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